Sunday, October 16, 2005

Breathless in Bolivia

We´re now in La Paz, Bolivia and boy is it different. First of all let me get some boring travel details out the way.

We had a flight booked (back in Hungary) for Salta to La Paz, which sounds sensible enough. However, the route was bad. It was actually 2 flights; Salta to Santa Cruz and then Santa Cruz to La Paz. The first flight went via Cordoba (Argentina). This is like flying from Budapest to London via St. Petersburg. It was way out of the way. Oh well, we got here in the end.

We knew we were arriving late and weren´t sure how we´d get on in Bolivia so we booked a room ahead of time and then got a taxi straight from the airport.

Now, I´m just going to write this down as it comes into my head so I apologise if it´s a bit garbled.

The connection in Santa Cruz wasn´t that bad. We weren´t that sure what was happening to our bags but it did give us a chance to get some money out. Turns out our bags were having a good old time romping around in the mud. When we got them, they were absolutely filthy, and of course they made us filthy when we put them on our backs. Never mind.

Taking money out is a bit odd as it seems to be common knowledge that it´s hard to pay for stuff with a Bs100 note, but the cash machines only give multiples of 50 so you´re going to have loads of them no matter what you try to do. 1 USD is about 8 Bolivianos.

Before we got to La Paz we repacked our bags with altitude in mind. We´d heard stories of exploding shampoo and the like. So all the bottles of liquids went into the small carry on bags. When I checked them upon landing, they did indeed make a farty protest noise at being so bloated.

La Paz is apparently the highest capital city in the world. The airport is above it at over 4,000m is the highest commercial airport in the world. Carrying your bags out is a breathless experience. We got a taxi down the side of the hill to the town which is at a smidgen over 3,500m.

Almost forgot. When we left Salta the temperature was around 20-something C. When we changed planes at Santa Cruz it was 24C. When we touched down in La Paz it was 6C, and it felt it.

Checked into the hotel which is a bit of a grand term for a basic half-basement room with no heating (oh, yes, it´s cold). But they did have a toilet and shower with hot water (shower only, basin is only cold water). No towels or toilet paper but we´re prepared. Didn´t sleep too well though as it was noisy, freezing cold, I couldn´t breath properly and the pigeons outside our window woke me up around 5am. Oh well, not doing anything today, just taking it easy and getting used to the altitude. Sucking on cocoa leaves and drinking Mate tea seems to help.

We´ve booked a tour of Salar de Uyuni. It´s a 4 day / 3 night trip round great countryside and includes a visit to the largest (and yes, the highest) salt lake in the world. Apparently you drive across white salt with maybe a bit of water on top, making it seem like a true out-of-this-world experience.

Back to where we are right now, La Paz and my first impressions are, big, noisy, dirty, smelly, steep, poor, breathless, tiring, bustling.

The hotel is just off the main square, Plaza Murillo (named after a revolutionary president who was dragged out of his home and hung in the square). The square has got the parliment and presidential buildings on the sides and when we were there this morning they had a great military brass band belting out tunes. Some guy in a white uniform sang a great song and the tune could have just been some Henri Mancinni (?) film classic, it was so cool.

We then walked downhill to the main road which was partly closed due to more celebrations and stalls etc (not sure what they´re celebrating yet). The streets are full of people selling stuff from stalls (part of the celebrations) but then there´s also a load of people trying to sell you all sorts of crap on the streets, some are begging, some offering to clean your shoes. There are lots of the stereotype old bolivian mamas with leathery faces and weird bowler-type hats.

The shoe cleaners are scary. They wear full-face balaclavas (maybe to stop breathing in all the chemicals they use, but not sure). They walk through crowds and they look like really dirty guerilla fighters or something. Tried to get some pictures of the people on the street but they´re not too keen and they don´t look like people I want to cross.

The streets are full of police in full military garb. Not sure if that makes me feel safer or not. I think I´d like to think they weren´t needed. When we were down on the main street we saw one drunk guy get shuffled (manhandled) off the streets to somewhere unknown. We´ve heard that it´s probably best not to deal with the police if you can. Apparently quite corrupt but on the plus side, that means that you can buy them if you get into trouble. Hope we don´t find out if this is true or not.

That´s my brain poured out for now. Maybe another post before we do our 4 day tour, but most likely to be silent until we´re back.

Updated with photos (29-Nov-2005) - Click for pics

Police band in the La Paz main square. Parliment in the background.

Che's pretty big here.

A street seller rats on me, pointing me out to a shoe cleaner.


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